Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Listen to the Sermon here.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s so easy to forget things. We’re good at forgetting things, aren’t we? Sometimes, we don’t just forget things but intentionally put them out of our minds. If something is particularly unpleasant, we try not to think about it. We don’t want to remember it. We like to avoid things because we don’t want to deal with them. And then comes something which reminds us of that very thing we were trying to forget. That’s why we have ashes on Ash Wednesday.
What About the Ashes?
But Pastor, what’s with this smudge of ash on our foreheads? Didn’t Jesus tell us not to disfigure our faces while fasting? The mark of ashes on your forehead is not about fasting. Who knows if you are fasting or not? And it’s no one’s business but your own. What Christ condemned in our Gospel reading is thinking that we can show others how good, sincere, devout, and righteous we are with these outward actions.
Remember, Jesus said the same thing about prayer and giving charitable gifts. His point is that these things should not be done as a show of righteousness. He’s not saying we cannot pray in public or as a group in worship. If we follow his example, we will pray in public. He did not forbid giving something publicly or to a group. And he did not forbid using ashes like we are today. The use of ashes is as old as Job and probably older.
What’s the point of the ashes then? The first thing ashes do is jog our memories. They are a sign, and signs point to something. The ashes speak a message, which is an unpleasant message that many of us try not to think about. Ashes jog our memory with a reminder of our mortality. “Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return” (Gen. 3:19). Remember. And while the ashes are poured upon the coffin, we hear the words: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Remember.
The Ashes are a warning, a sign of condemnation. They shout out: DEAD MAN WALKING. They proclaim the reality we try to hide from but cannot escape: “I’m dying.” And not so subtly, they announce: “And you are too.” Headed for the grave we are, both of us. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Those words come from the mouth of Almighty God himself, speaking to a rebellious man.
You are going to die. Death is simply a fact of our existence. We can try to ignore, hide from, and play games with it – but in the end, it’s no game, and there’s no hiding. Death tracks you down and squeezes the last bit of life from you. And then your breathless clay returns to dust and ashes. We don’t like thinking about our own mortality. Frankly, it scares us. So, we place ashes upon ourselves to remind us, lest we forget or ignore it. And yes, you can undoubtedly remember without the mark of ashes on the forehead. But ashes, as the believers have known for a for thousands of years, make the point rather more directly: they are the very dust toward which you shall return. It is an outward sign of our mortality. There’s a very literal and physical connection made here.
Ashes also serve to confess our mourning. Ashes are a sign of death, a sign of our own mortality. That mortality is your fault. If you sin, you die. That’s the law. And everyone here will die because we all have sinned. We are so consumed with our sin that we are unaware of how heinous it is. But, sometimes, we glimpse what terrible things we’ve done. Occasionally, we begin to feel the deep pain our sin has caused. Regret, guilt, sorrow, remorse, contrition: those feelings will well up when we start to realize the depth of our wickedness. So, we place ashes upon ourselves as a sign of our remorse, regret, and sorrow over our sins.
Ashes serve as a confession. The ash on the forehead is a confession that the person is worth only ashes. The ashes confess that we have no righteousness. The ashes acknowledge that no one is better than another. The ashes confess that we all need God’s grace if there is any hope for us. And so, with the outward sign, we put it into words. We confess to God verbally that we have sinned against him. We deserve his just punishment. God’s law says, “You’re a miserable sinner who deserves nothing but death and hell.” And when we confess our sins, we agree. “Yeah, that’s me.”
What about Absolution?
If death, confession, and hell is all this day were about, it would be a pretty sad and hopeless day. What, then, is there to do? “Return to the Lord,” comes the reply. Return. Return is the operative word for Lent. Another way of saying it is to repent. Repent, turn back to the Lord. He is gracious, merciful, and full of steadfast love. So return, children of God. The God to whom you return is the God who has turned to you in His Son Jesus.
Those ashes go on in the shape of a cross. Why? To remind you of the Cross of your Lord Jesus Christ. And the Lord Jesus is the One we are summoned to return to. The ashes point to his immeasurable and incompressible love for you. He is the One Who knew that we, on our own, would not come to Him, return to Him, find Him; so He came to us, returned for us, was faithful for us, and happily rescued us from our sin and death. The Cross proves that love for you was so great, so unbelievably massive, that the Only-begotten Son of God – was willing to become man for you, born of the virgin, to have his flesh torn from his body for you.
The Creator God himself, the Only Begotten Son of the Father, became man. He became dust for you so that he could deal with your sin. He chose to carry it Himself. All of it. Every last bit of it. Upon the Cross of Calvary, he paid for your sins. Think of it! You are free because HE paid for your idolatry, your cursing. He paid for your disregard of God’s word and the dishonour you’ve shown to your parents and other authorities. He made restitution for every hateful word and deed you’ve ever done. All your discontentment, your sexual sins, your laziness and stealing, your hatred and lying words have been dealt with. HE paid it all. HE owned it even to his death. It has no hold on you. Not now. Not anymore. You’ve been set free. By His blood. By His death. By His passion.
So, fear not! Christ gave himself into a bitter death for you. His unending life is yours even when the grave closes over your head and your body lies in dust and ashes. Death won’t be able to hold you since your sins are answered for by his blood. Death has no right to you. Not now. Not anymore. You are Christ’s and he will remember you, he will never forget you. Do not fear!
Lent begins with an invitation to return. If you are a sinner, the prophet’s invitation rings out as sheer refreshment: “even you, even now: return!” Return to Him, to His embrace and love. You heard it in Joel – “Return to the Lord your God.” Why? “For He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…the Lord had pity on His people.” This is our confession and our prayer too. That’s why Christ’s forgiveness upon the Cross is given to his ministers to proclaim and deliver to you. When a minister proclaims forgiveness, he does so because he has been commanded to do so by Christ himself. In his stead, by his command. “whoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven to them” (John 20:23).
In a few moments, you’ll come forward and receive the absolution. Those sins which burden you will be forgiven. You’ll be free. Since you’re about to be acquitted of your crimes, the death sentence will be commuted. Even though the grave will close over your head and your body will lie in dust and ashes, eternal life is promised to you. Death has no more dominion over you since Jesus paid it all. So, let us “return to the Lord with all our hearts, fasting, weeping, and mourning. Let us return to the Lord, our God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.”
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.